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First Corinthians 15--The resurrection dispute, part 1

Sep 12, 2017

The heart of the gospel, Paul says, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For this reason, He appeared to more than five hundred people after His resurrection in the forty days prior to His ascension in Acts 1:9. In fact, this was the primary reason Jesus did not immediately ascend to heaven after He was raised from the dead. Well, actually, He did ascend that same morning (John 20:17 KJV) in order to present Himself as the first fruits of barley while the High Priest was waving the physical sheaves in the temple. But He returned to show Himself to others in order to prove His resurrection.

The importance of His resurrection—and the idea of resurrection in general—was important enough to the apostle for him to spend a great deal of time discussing the subject. He list many people who saw Christ after His resurrection, and then shows its practical connection to all other resurrections yet to come.

1 Corinthians 15:12-14 begins,

12 Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.

Which believers “among you” in the church had been saying “that there is no resurrection of the dead”? How could they feasibly believe such a thing and still believe in Christ? Paul’s wording implies that these people did indeed believe that Jesus Himself was raised from the dead, but yet they still denied that anyone else would be raised.

Paul argues that if there is no resurrection (for the rest of us), then neither could Christ be raised from the dead. Paul links the two together, and he then proceeds to instruct the Corinthians that Christ’s resurrection proves that we ourselves will be raised as well.

A related dispute is mentioned in 2 Timothy 2:16-18,

16 But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 men who have gone astray from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and thus they upset the faith of some.

These men did not deny the resurrection as a principle, but in claiming that it had already taken place in the past, the effect of their teaching was the same. No doubt they interpreted Matthew 27:52, 53 to mean that the resurrection took place when Jesus was raised from the dead. The language of that passage is somewhat obscure as to timing, but it appears that “many bodies of the saints” were raised, not when Jesus died, but when He was raised from the dead.

We are not told if they were raised to immortal life or if they were raised in the manner of Lazarus, who died at a later time. Paul’s comment about Hymenaeus and Philetus tells us that this was NOT a true resurrection from the dead—at least not a resurrection to immortal life.

The Sadducee-Pharisee Resurrection Dispute

Many in those days denied the possibility of resurrection. Among them were the sect of the Sadducees, which actually controlled the temple in Jerusalem until the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. In Matthew 22:23 we read,

23 On that day some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Him and questioned Him…

Years later, when Paul was questioned by the Council in Jerusalem, he used this issue to sow dissension among the Council members, for some were Sadducees and others Pharisees. So we read in Acts 23:6-8,

6 But perceiving that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” 7 And as he said this, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.

Hence, Paul could claim to be a Pharisee insofar as his belief in resurrection was concerned. Josephus tells us that both the Pharisees and the Essenes believed in the resurrection of the body (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii, 1, 5). There were countless variations of belief, of course, which we cannot list here. Some believed that only Israelites would be raised, others believed that only those who died in the Holy Land would be raised. Still others believed that the resurrection would be universal, with the wicked being judged, and the righteous being rewarded.

These views are all discussed more thoroughly in The Jewish Encyclopedia under the topic of “Resurrection.”

The Sadducees were not atheists. They believed in God, but they denied the resurrection. What, then, was their alternate belief? Did they really believe that when their life was finished, they had no hope of a future life? Unfortunately, though history says much about their denial of the (bodily) resurrection, it says little or nothing about their actual belief about eternal destiny.

It is most probable that their alternate belief was that when a person died, their immortal soul went to heaven. In that heavenly condition, they saw no further need for a person to return to a body—except, perhaps, for those who were not yet worthy of eternal bliss. Such people, the Greeks believed, would have to be reincarnated into another physical body in order to pay for their sins committed in the previous body. Whether the Sadducees believed in reincarnation or not, I do not know. They must have had some such view of judgment for sin.

We do know that the Sadducees were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, and that the Greeks were dualists. The Greeks believed that matter was evil and spirit was good. They believed that the soul was spiritual and immortal. They believed that their destiny was to separate the spiritual soul from the body; hence, a bodily resurrection represented a regression back into the original problem.

Hence, the Sadducees had a Greek view of creation, which then determined its destiny as well—how the story of history would have to end. The Pharisees believed the biblical story of creation, and since matter was infused with death at a later point in time, the solution was to restore matter to its original pristine condition. To them, the bodily resurrection accomplished this.

The point is that in his early years Paul himself had been thoroughly schooled in the various opinions about resurrection. This was not a new issue for him, and when he learned that some in the Corinthian assembly were denying the resurrection, he saw the Greek influence and addressed it accordingly. We are not told if the resurrection deniers were Greek converts who had brought their cultural philosophy with them into the church, or if these were Jewish believers who had brought their Sadducee beliefs with them.

Not once does Paul hint that he had deviated from his Pharisee roots in dealing with this particular issue. In fact, as we will see throughout his discussion, not once does he attempt to correct the view of the Pharisees concerning a bodily resurrection. It is only in proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection that he differs with the opinion of the Pharisees, who would have denied that fact, at least in public. And in view of the many views about who is eligible for resurrection, Paul chooses sides, telling us that the resurrection is universal and not limited to Israelites or to those buried in the Holy Land.

The Bodily Resurrection

The historical context of the first-century dispute shows that resurrection was defined in terms of a bodily resurrection. If the Sadducees used the term resurrection at all, it would have been to spiritualize it and redefine it in terms of an immortal soul going to heaven. But the dispute itself had defined the term to mean a bodily resurrection; thus, we see that the Sadducees denied the resurrection. There was no need to add the qualifier, bodily resurrection, for everyone understood the meaning of the words as they were being used historically.

Jesus’ own resurrection added weight to this definition, for though His post-resurrection body was certainly of a different quality, it was nonetheless a physical body. Luke thought this definition was important enough to include in his gospel—which is essentially Paul’s gospel, since Luke shared Paul’s perspective.

When Jesus suddenly appeared to the disciples in the locked room in Jerusalem, they thought at first that they were seeing a spirit, or ghost (Luke 24:37). By this, Luke raises the question of how we are to define resurrection. Was Jesus’ resurrection a bodily resurrection or just a spiritual resurrection? Luke answers this in Luke 24:39, where Jesus says,

39 “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

Though He says nothing of blood, there is no question that Jesus had a physical body when He appeared to them. Luke 24:41-43 tells us that Jesus offered a further proof of this, writing,

41 And while they still could not believe it for joy and were marveling, He said to them, “Have you anything to eat?” 42 And they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; 43 and He took it and ate it before them.

Once Jesus proved to the disciples that resurrection meant a bodily resurrection, He then said in Luke 24:44,

44 Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.

In other words, having proved the principle of the bodily resurrection, Jesus explained that this is what He had been talking about during His ministry, and this was how to interpret the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. The definition of resurrection was very important.


This is part 99 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in First Corinthians


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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones